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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Violin Concerto (1935) [26:20]
Lyric Suite (1926) [18:13]
Three Orchestral Pieces (1914-15) [20:11]
Rebecca Hirsch, violin
Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra, Eri Klas, conductor
Recorded from 31 August to 4 September 1999 in the Netherlands Hilversum Hall, Netherlands. [DDD]
NAXOS 8.554755


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Alban Berg was the star pupil of Arnold Schoenberg and was, to my ears, the most successful and creative composer of the serialist movement. As is the case with so many great musicians, death stole him from us at the height of his powers, and while he was, by today’s standards, still a very young man. His climb to success as a composer is a testament to his own tenacity and to the qualities of Schoenberg as a teacher. At the beginning of his education he was barely capable of writing a strophic song. Upon graduation from Schoenberg’s class in 1910, he had produced the formidable Opus 3 string quartet.

The masterful violin concerto, one of the composer’s last works, began life as a commission from the violinist Louis Krasner. At the time of the commission he was hard at work on his opera Lulu, which was alas left unfinished. The commission from Krasner was doubtless accepted solely for financial reasons; but he was inspired to complete it when Alma Mahler Werfel’s eighteen-year-old daughter died of a brain tumor in April of 1935. Dedicated "to the memory of an angel," this work ranks along with the violin concerti of Samuel Barber and Sergei Prokofiev as one of the greatest of its genre in the twentieth century. A work of haunting lyricism, it is all the more poignant for its emotional restraint. Richard Strauss has only depicted the musical journey from birth to life to death to resurrection as well in his famous tone poem on the same subject. Berg’s quotation of the Bach chorale Es ist genug is a stroke of genius, building his expansive harmonic vocabulary on the solid, traditional ground of the master from Leipzig.

Rebecca Hirsch gives us a fine solid performance here. Hers is playing of refined elegance, never overt, always in good taste with emotions displayed but not on the sleeve. Her tone comes through with a great deal of richness while never being in your face. Her virtuosity is expressed through her obvious dedication to the composer’s intentions for his work, and not on virtuosity for its own sake. There is little to criticize here except for the doubtlessly difficult final extended harmonic, which fades in and out of its center more often than makes the listener comfortable.

Eri Klas and the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra not only provide superb accompaniment for the concerto, but also deliver the orchestral works with tremendous success. The beastly difficult Lyric Suite began life as a six-movement string quartet. Its premiere in that guise was so successful that Berg re-cast the second, third and fourth movements for string orchestra. The amazing, multi-layered string effects are played flawlessly here. The intonation is perfect and the balance is breath taking. Listening to the intricate goings-on, especially in the second movement is an absolute delight for the ears.

The Three Orchestral Pieces came about after some cajoling by Schoenberg for the composer to focus his attention on more serious, larger compositional forms. The first two movements were completed in time for Schoenberg’s fortieth birthday celebration in 1914, and although he completed the third movement the next year, he would wait until 1930 before he would hear the work performed as a whole. This is a dark and brooding work, thickly orchestrated and dramatic. Consistent with the entire program here, maestro Klas leads an excellent performance.

Naxos sound production is becoming more consistently fine with every new release. This is a well-focused recording. Details within the orchestration are captured and the distance between very soft and very loud is in excellent balance.

Richard Whitehouse, whom I have criticized here before, has written a rambling and grammatically questionable program note. His maddening habit of eliminating definite articles, and his tendency to hyperbolize the dramatic content of a work through the overuse of big words makes for tiresome reading though others may perhaps have less of a problem with this. His syntactical errors (the incorrect use of effect as a verb, for example) are discrediting.

This disc is another jewel in the Naxos crown. Highly recommended, bad booklet and all.

Kevin Sutton

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